South American Soccer Limps On Despite Coronavirus Threat; Clubs And Players Protest

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While sporting events the world over are being cancelled owing to the growing coronavirus pandemic, professional club soccer limps on in some parts of South America. But with stadiums in many regions on the continent closed to fans and more and more nations starting to suspend matches altogether, that may not be the case for much longer.

Many games have gone ahead as normal over the last week, most notably in the Copa Libertadores, South America’s prestigious continental competition.

On Thursday night, Grêmio and Internacional played in front of more than 50,000 fans in Porto Alegre. Supporters were also present elsewhere in Brazil as Palmeiras took on Guarani, São Paulo played LDU Quito and Flamengo faced Barcelona de Guayaquil.

Boca Juniors of Argentina, meanwhile, beat Independiente Medellín 3-0 in front of packed house. In Chile, Bolivia, Colombia and Uruguay, games also took place with gates open as usual.

In Paraguay, however, all games were played in empty stadiums as the national government decided to suspend all mass gatherings, including at sports events.

Three games were played behind closed doors in Brazil and Argentina, though only one of those because of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. Racing Club versus Allianza Lima was played without fans as a precautionary measure against the virus. Yet River Plate and Santos were forced to shut their stadiums as a result of bans owing to fan violence in previous editions of the competition.

On Thursday, however, South American soccer’s governing body Conmebol announced that all games in the Copa Libertadores would be indefinitely suspended from next week. In an official statement, the organization said, “Conmebol is committed to the prevention of COVID-19”.

The move towards precautionary action is now occurring some countries’ domestic leagues, too. After initially suggesting that games would go ahead without the presence of supporters, the Uruguayan soccer federation announced the suspension of all fixtures in an official statement on Friday, adding that the decision was a “complement to the preventative measures taken by the National Government”.

Authorities have likewise suspended or cancelled all matches in Colombia, Paraguay, Venezuela, Peru and Ecuador.

In Chile and Argentina, meanwhile, games will be continue to be played, but behind closed doors.

In Argentina, there is a great deal of controversy over whether games should proceed or not. After the first two fixtures in the Copa de la Superliga on Friday night, Racing Club full-back Iván Pillud took to Instagram to express his dismay.

“I would like to know how much longer they will wait to suspend this round of the Copa de la Superliga 2020”, he wrote. “Or do they perhaps think that us players are immune to coronavirus?”

River Plate, one of the most popular clubs in the country, has already refused to take part in its scheduled fixture on Saturday afternoon.

The Buenos Aires side was due to play Atlético Tucumán, but an official club statement posted on Twitter by their veteran defender Javier Pinola read, “River Plate informs that it will remain closed in its entirety from Saturday, March 14, for an undetermined period.”

Marcelo Tinelli, vice-president of Argentina’s football federation, the AFA, accused River of being “individualist” and the threat of a points deduction hangs over the club, but River directors have so far shown no sign of willingness to change their minds.

In Brazil, where, as of March 13, the health ministry had confirmed 98 cases of coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), the decisions are being made on a state-by-state and sometimes even city-by-city basis.

In the North and North-East regions, where the number of cases is far lower, most states have decided to continue as normal. In the Centre-West, Goiás and the Federal District have barred the public from stadiums, but supporters in other states in the region remain on track attend games this weekend.

In the South and South-East, however, closures are more widespread. In São Paulo state, the stadiums will be shut in the state capital, São Paulo, affecting the derby game between São Paulo and Santos, but not in other cities. In Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais, Paraná and Rio de Janeiro, all games will be played behind closed doors.

Quoted in Folha de S.Paulo, Rio state Governor Wilson Witzel said, “With closed gates, there is no agglomeration [of people]. On the contact between players… well, that’s their risk.”

Leandro Castán, captain of local side Vasco da Gama, responded ironically to the far-right politician on Twitter, saying, “The risk is ours, great response, great governor, thanks for your respect with the players!!!”

The question most fans are asking now is: how much longer can the soccer continue in any form?

The Brazilian federal Ministry of Health has already recommended that all mass gatherings be cancelled, and the national soccer confederation has said that it is “permanently monitoring the national scenario together with the Ministry of Health, whose orientation will continue to guide the decisions of the entity.”